JERUSALEM - The Israeli government approved yesterday the release of more than 400 Palestinian prisoners starting as early as this week in a bid to satisfy a key Palestinian demand and to prevent the latest Middle East peace plan from breaking down.
The list of Palestinians to be sprung from Israeli jails and detention centers includes an assortment of prisoners, from petty thieves and elderly convicts to men held as possible security risks, Israeli officials said. The first of the releases could come as soon as Wednesday.
Haggling over how many and which prisoners to let go has occupied the Israeli government for weeks as progress on the "road map" to peace, an initiative co-sponsored by the United States, has lurched on. Although not technically part of the plan, the release of at least some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody has become a key point of contention between the two sides.
The names of those to be freed - about 430 in all - are expected to be made public beginning today. The list will be closely scrutinized and, almost certainly, criticized by Palestinian officials who regard anything short of a blanket release as inadequate and by Israeli opponents of the peace plan who say any such concessions could imperil Israeli lives despite a temporary cease-fire declared by Islamic militant groups.
Indeed, more violence on both sides broke out yesterday. In the morning, Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian motorist who they said failed to heed warnings to stop and bumped into a police car at a military checkpoint in northern Jerusalem. The man was shot as he got out of his vehicle and tried to flee the scene, Israeli radio reported.
Last night, four Israelis, a mother and three children, were wounded in a shooting ambush on the outskirts of Jerusalem, near the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Israeli troops recently withdrew from Bethlehem as part of their obligations under the Middle East road map. Militants affiliated with the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade - one of the armed groups that have agreed to the cease-fire - claimed responsibility for the attack.
"We're willing to make gestures and release prisoners," said Ranaan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Why do we have to pay in blood?"
Israel has conducted prisoner releases in past negotiations with the Palestinians, but many of those freed have been small-time criminals and other delinquents rather than those suspected of involvement in the two uprisings against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Palestinian officials have demanded that this new batch be more politically meaningful.
Meeting yesterday evening, an Israeli ministerial committee charged with drawing up the list of releases rejected suggestions that it include Palestinians currently in legal proceedings or trials. "You can't ignore the legal process," Gissin said.
Israel also refuses to let go anyone it accuses of "having blood on their hands" - involvement in terrorist attacks against Israelis.
On the Palestinian side, guards at Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah have released from detention 17 militants whom Arafat had asked to be removed to Jericho. Arafat's security detail had reportedly locked the men in a room after they refused the Palestinian leader's order to go.
Arafat apparently hoped that the men's removal would help persuade Israeli forces to ease their siege of his battered headquarters and, perhaps, to pull out entirely from Ramallah. But the Israeli government has said that a withdrawal from the city is not imminent.
The 17 militants were reportedly released from their house arrest on condition that they remain at the headquarters, abide by the cease-fire and restrict their contact with outsiders to family members.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.